26 January, 2007

Laos is sweet and loveable

Mmm. I like it here a lot so far. Sweet town, nice people, cheap eats, cozy weather, all the touristy things you need but not more than you'd want. Well, maybe more than you'd want. But definitely avoidable. We have rented bicycles today and are going to pedal around. Pictures of sweet, sweet little Luang Prabang are currently being uploaded. Poor Kenny is in a state of shock after being accepted to both Indiana Bloomington and William and Mary, both with scholarship money based on merit. And it's only January! We're not supposed to expect all the colleges to respond until March or April. Rock. Let's get this guy a reviving bowl of noodles.

Serena-- does the Thai restaurant in Boone have green papaya salad? It's my favorite! I'll meet you for a bowl this summer. :)

25 January, 2007

"Laos" rhymes with "wow"

I have just talked to the Folk School and it seems they have a spot for me in September 2008- March 2009. So! With the excitement that that information gave me, I decided to give the whole Masters degree a whirl and I will be applying to Prescott College's distance-learning program to get my M.A. Woo!

Realizing that this is supposed to be a travel blog, I should mention that we're now in Luang Prabang, Laos. It took us three frustrating days on a slow boat from Chiang Mai, Thailand (much more on the trip will be pasted here soon, since my writings are on Kenny's laptop and we're in an Internet cafe), but boy am I glad to be on land again finally and stretching my legs.

It was greatly comforting to have noodle soup for dinner again- I can tell we're almost back to Vietnam! Squeezing lime wedges and dropping handfuls of bean sprouts into my beefy broth was a good, good feeling. And then the squirt of fish sauce: a little bowl of heaven.

What's Laos all about? I'll be reporting as soon as I start to find out.

22 January, 2007

Take the Slow Boat

We are leaving Thailand tomorrow and heading to Laos.

Good bye, green curry with chicken and coconut!

Good bye, medieval city walls!

Good bye, signs in English!

Tomorrow morning at 0930 we take a minibus to the boarder, then board a slow boat (3 days) to Luang Prabang, Laos. Here's something I never knew: apparently you don't pronounce the "s" at the end. Did you guys know that? It sounded funny to me at first but now I sorta wince when I hear someone Laos like a rhyme for "mouse." It is supposed to rhyme with "cow." So, who knew.

I'm going shopping for fruit and snacks for the long slow trip down the Mekong. I am saying goodbye by walking around by myself in the sunshine and listening to my iPod. Will I ever come back to Chiang Mai? I hope so.

Here is the Blog I wrote on the way.

Grrr. I am raging the rage of a sucker. A border-crossing, packaged-tour buying sucker. If you want to go from Thailand to Laos, listen up: the goal of this blog is to save someone from going through the same crap that we are going through right now.

So we’re in Chiang Mai, right? And we want to go to Laos. We spend a morning going door to door, asking advice of travel agents on how best (and cheapest) to get to Luang Prabang, Laos. Every single place is selling the same tour: a company named aYa (their tall red and white banner is the warning sign) will pick you up from your guest house around 0930, drive you to the border in a minibus, you pay for your visa, they feed you dinner, then you spend the night in a guesthouse. The next morning, they feed you breakfast and put you on the slow boat, which takes two days. That second night is your own expense, as is meals from here on out. In the afternoon of the second day on the boat, you reach Luang Prabang.

Every agent that we talked to offered this trip and only this trip. One place offered it for 1350B, one place for 1250B, and finally, one place for 1150B (Tic Travel in the Old City, if you’re interested). So we book the tour at the cheapest place and the next morning we’re picked up by the minivan.

Now here’s a good thing: the minivan is cushy. It’s spacious, the A/C works, and they didn’t overload it with passengers (first time we’ve seen this happen so far). There were the usual commissioned stops, of course, but no sales pressure; if you wanted a snack, you bought a snack, and the bus didn’t linger overly long at any of the stops.

Now, in Chiang Mai, all the travel agents were pretty clear on one thing: a Laos visa costs $30. That’s what they all said. So we brought $30 each, in US Dollars, as we were explicitly told to do by Tic Travel. So here’s where the first bad thing happens. When we are dispatched from the minibus at the border, the aYa staff there (I’m assuming that’s who they were, since they were there to handle our group) handing us the paperwork tells us that a visa for a US citizen costs $40. That’s a 33% price increase from what the travel agent told us the day before. Sorry, says the border girl, these prices have been in effect since November. Well how is that possible, I ask, since we were just told yesterday by this company that visas are $30? I don’t know, she says, we can’t be responsible for what they tell you in Chiang Mai.

Now hold on a sec. My understanding is that when you fly a company’s banner, write out an itemized receipt with the company logo, and have the company pick you up the next day that the price they quoted should be the correct price. I am completely aware that things work differently here than they do at home, but still, isn’t that sort of blatantly scammy? We sigh and hand over the forty dollars each. Ouch. Then we are ferried across the river—the most laid-back border I could ever imagine. Once we’re on the other side, the guy who is in charge of us (and who I was also assuming works for aYa but who later hands us a card that says EasyTrip) makes us wait quite a while to get our passports back. He’s got them, but he’s handing them out very slowly, and oddly enough, hanging onto the USA ones for last. I’m watching him do this. Once we get our passports we join the queue to have them stamped, which is the last step in being here legally, and we notice a sign broadcasting the price of a visa if you buy it on this side of the river: $35 for a US citizen. What? So we did just hand over a pocket greasing tip! Dang it! When we get to the front of the line, we read that there is a surcharge for overtime work (done between 4pm and 6pm). It is 5:15 pm, but we have been hanging out just waiting for at least an hour. We grumble and hand over the surcharge (which, ok, it isn’t much- about a dollar. But still, now we’re at $6 or $11 over what it is supposed to cost, depending on where you’re counting from).

(A quick note to those living back home in the States, or Oz, or wherever: please forgive me for being so concerned over this smallish amount of money. I know it’s what I used to happily spend on a greek salad at the Brew’n’View. But trust me, when your daily budget is $10, including room and board and fun and everything, a situation like this can cause some stress: we just lost a day of traveling).

Anyway, we ask our guy in charge of us what the official exchange rate is (he has asked us to call him “Mr. Information,” after all) but he rather slyly says that he doesn’t want to answer any of our questions until dinner time, when he can tell everyone all at once. That is when he will tell us, quote, “What to do and what to don’t in Laos.” Okay.

At the appointed time, we are gathered and waiting for his speech. But all it consists of is: don’t try to spend your local currency in Laos. In Laos, you can only spend Lao money. You can get Laos money at a thing called a bank. At this point, I am grumpy and I feel cheated and I am in no mood for a long lecture from a sleazy guy who seems like he is about to—yup, he just did: he tells us that the banks have just closed but this very hotel that he is standing in (that he has led us to) will be happy to exchange our local currencies for the Laos kip. I am sure that they will. Instead of shuffling to the end of the now forming line to be given a shoddy exchange rate (8000 kip to the dollar, as opposed to the 9600 kip rate at the bank), we approach Mr. Info and ask him what time we’ll be leaving in the morning. No, no, he says—that I will tell everyone later. No, no, we say—you will tell us exactly now. Okay, he says to me conspiratorially, but he (Kenny) has to cover his ears. He tells me that the boat will leave at 10 but we will meet in this hotel at 9am. Ok, then, it’s decided: tomorrow morning we’re going to the banks, so that we can at least feel like our few remaining dollars are dying a decent death.

Now it is time to assign us to our rooms, which are not bad, although the first and second guesthouses fill up and the rest of us go on a little hike down the street to find some empty rooms. Once we do, the room is good: big, clean, with towels (yes!) and two rolls of toilet paper (double yes!). Ours also has free hot drinking water, which means our instant coffee and tea bags will keep us warm tonight. So this is not bad. But when we head over to hotel central to get our included dinner, what is handed to us is a Styrofoam container of room-temperature fried rice. We saw them deliver it an hour earlier, during our talk. And that’s dinner.

Breakfast the next morning is a cold egg between two slices of white bread. Come to get yours a little bit late, and the lady handing them out asks you for 6,000 kip, not believeing that you haven't yet had your alotted egg sammy. Then we line up to get on the boat, but not before they try to sell you a cushion on which to sit (the boats have wooden benches) for 100B. Didn't they just tell us it was illegal to use any curreny besides kip?!

Then comes two very long days on sitting on the boat, but our moods improve greatly with the new scenery and the funny company of other scammed yet merry tourists. In fact, the farther into Laos we float, and the further from our packaged tour prices, the easier everything seems. By the time we land in Luang Prabang, we once again have stars in our eyes in regards to Asia but still, very glad to be off the boat.

But as far as aYa goes, we are not impressed. If we had bought the public bus ticket from Chiang mai to the border (250 to 300B), bought the Visa on the Laos side ($35 for US citizens), and purchased the slow boat ticket separately (130,000 kip, which I suspect to be about $13), we could have found some cheap guest house and noodle soup for dinner and be better fed and have more in our wallets right now. I vow to never again take a packaged tour, especially not one from aYa. This blows. I think that crossing from Laos back into Vietnam will be my big project now, and I think I’ve got it figured out: we’re going to forsake the tourist trail (Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng to Vientiane) and head east, going from Luang Prabang to Muang Ngoi Neua to Sam Neua and cross into VN at Nam Xoi. Yeah.

19 January, 2007

Forgot about the monks

Oops, forgot to say that we did the retreat thing, and it was very, very cool. They gave us white billowy clothes to wear, and we sat on cushions in front of a giant Buddha and meditated for a long time, and we were silent for almost 24 hours (except for the chanting) and we got great vegetarian meals *and* hot cocoa. And it was free.

The monks were sweet, very young, and quite handsome. Too bad they really do believe that if a woman wants to be ordained as a monk, it's because of her ego, and they cannot let it happen. But it's great if a man becomes ordained. It brings merit to his family. Ah well: it's good to know that even Buddhism, though very close, is not the perfect organized religion.

Next year... is foggy

Been thinking a lot about what I'll be doing next year. Part of me really wants to get my Masters. I think Prescott College in Arizona would be the best place, since it's an Interdisciplinary design-your-own-degree sort of thing, plus distance learning, which means I can be working on my degree by actually working, from anywhere I may live. That is especially appealing, since we're not sure which schools are going to accept Kenny and which might be the best option. We'd like to stay close to family (NC, New England, wherever C&K are), but want to be in a somewhat warm climate (to stave off seasonal grumpiness and bulky clothes), but also go wherever offers him money/will cause the least scary amount of debt (1 year of law school costs more than most new cars). But also, Kenny would love to go to a big name school where graduates are actively sought out for great paying exciting jobs-- and those places are not cheap, and are not all in warm places. So as usual, only time can sift all this down for us. Hopefully Kenny will have a clear choice so that we can make lots of pros&cons lists-- I love those. So far, it's looking good: some of the most attractive schools on the top of his list have asked for more info about him via the online application site, and the time for all applications to be in is nigh, which means soon schools will be making the cut. Exciting! And also a little strange knowing there's nothing else to be done on our end. Just check email every morning and send out as many good thoughts as possible.

As far as non-degree options for next year: I am still waiting for the Folk School to contact me. After a brief hopeful period (they sent a letter to my parents' house, saying I was being considered for the host position), things went downhill fast (half of my reference letters hadn't made it, my emails weren't answered until after all the 2007 positions were filled, and I've written monthly for the last two months inquiring politely but firmly as to the 2008 positions, which I'm almost sure are filled by this point, with no reply). Arggh! Is it meant to be that all the wonderful art schools I talk to turn out to be flaky and uncommunicative? Come on, Folk School, I thought I knew you better than that. Can't you see we'd be perfect for each other?? Arghh again. But (trying to be positive here) maybe this will be the time that they do write back, and say "oh yes, look, now we have all your reference letters, and there's still a position open sometime in the next decade, would you officially like it?" And then I will officially accept and they will write back immediately to confirm it and then I won't have to wonder any more.

If I hear nothing from them, I'm going to be disappointed, but there's still a few options I'm really interested in pursuing: I've been talking for some time about beginning a Waldorf teacher training course, which would cost more money than I have, but many places offer teach as you learn opportunities, which could ease the financial burden a little. Also, I'm not above taking out a loan: I've got great credit (thank the lord and Citicard) and then K and I could have fun paying our loans off together while celebrating our new status as actual lawyer/waldorf teacher. Is that wacky thinking? Hmm.

Another option would be to take a full time teaching job for the '07-'08 school year, but I *really* don't want to. I'm having a change of heart regarding my degree. I still love theatre, but I don't think that teaching it all day in a school setting is what I want to do. I would love to work for a community theatre or camp or something a little less 8-5ish. Let's see what I can find in [wherever we'll be living].

So, all pondering aside, I'm not worried that much. I want to know, but I've always been relentlessly curious about my immediate future. I'll be okay not knowing for a few more months. But oh, when I do find out... a slew of internet research will begin! A veritable flood!

13 January, 2007

Can I Major in Marketing?

I'm online trying to coerce the guesthouse computer to upload my pictures. Being a sillyhead, I put the latest batch of pictures onto the hard drive of this computer and then elected to delete the originals from my card, before realizing that for some technical reason unknown to me, this computer will not download the Flickr uploader. Hmmph. So I'm attempting to upload the pictures directly onto the website, an achingly slow process I've only tried once before (and now return to only because of necessity). Outside there is a couple fighting in a Germanic sounding tongue. Harsh!

While I wait for my pictures to travel through the wires and across the universe (where is the Flickr site, dimensionally speaking?), I will pass time by writing about my daily adventures. It's so great having Lauren here, not only for the chance it gives me to hang out with a new person and gives Kenny a chance to do some stuff by himself, but for the femaleness of the company-- yay, girls! We've been making up for lost time by hitting the markets hard: sampling banana chips, basil cashews, dried kiwis, pretty shiny things to bring home to other girls (or boys who want Thai silk purses and scarves).

I did a sort of naughty thing. I sold two books to a used bookstore, but technically the books weren't mine to begin with, they were left behind by other travellers. I can't decide if this is bad. But I don't really think so. I don't feel bad. And now many more people will have the chance to read them than could before, when one (Jane Eyre) was stuck under a pile of mouldering Thai newspapers and dusty Dutch magazines and the other (A Pedant Cooks, or something) wedged in between for-rent guidebooks on a guesthouse shelf. And now I have 150 Baht, or about $4. It would be naughty, I think, if I turned this into a way to make money on the road, but really I set out to just trade them in for another book to read. But then the nice lady at the used book store (who was listening to an Iris DeMent CD, funnily enough) said, "would you like the cash now?" and the only possible answer to that question, when one has just been discussing with one's travel partner the unfortunate fact of one's dwindling budget, is heck yes.

So we're in Chiang Mai, a town which apparently is famous for all kinds of handicrafts. In fact I realize now that a good portion of the handicrafts I see in the markets in Saigon are actually from here, and a heck of a lot more affordable here, plus they look so nice in their natural setting... so I blew my budget just a little bit (honestly), and I made wise decisions, and I bought more for friends and family than I did for myself, and I don't really feel that bad about it. Especially considering my natural proclivity to ooh and ahh and drool over the Thai color schemes and design elements. Not to mention the size of this market. It's a phenomenon. So vast, so packed, so well lit (it's on one very long cobblestony street-- which we happen to live on-- at night, so all the yellow lamps and buttery shadows only serve to make the colors and textures that much more delicious), I'm surprised I didn't fall down in a state of worship and pledge myself into a lifelong commitment of living exactly here, on this corner, next to the handwoven shawls. Seriously, it was a feat. What I ended up with: half a dozen handbags in various glowing Thai colors to give out to older (mom-aged) lady friends; a gorgeous, comfy pair of clogs for me; a dozen pairs of carved coconut earrings for friends; one especially gorgeous pair of silvery earrings for Julia; a pair of twisty silver earrings for myself; and lots of pictures of the rest of the available loot (which are still trying to upload, by them way!) to serve as inspiration of a cheaper variety. I can look at them and remember how good it felt to be surrounded by so much handmade beauty. The market also had several food villages, which drew Kenny's attention, each spread out in the courtyards surrounding the wats (temples). We ate spicy noodles, coconut curries with fried pork balls, and of course the star of each street meal: deep fried bananas (oh dear god, they are so good). Then we waddled on, letting the hum of the dozens of languages exclaiming over rare finds carry us home.

I researched shipping costs today and if you don't mind using an actual ship and waiting for a few months, it's not too grossly unaffordable to send a package home. I'm not really considering this, but there are just so many things here that so many people that I know would love. Now that I'm at the age where I really like my parents again, and plus so many of my friends are at the settling down point, I find myself fingering things like carved wall hangings, silk bedspreads, tall paper lamps, and the like. The markets have SO many souvenirs, and only about half of them are small enough to take up a corner of my backpack. I can't carry around a big thing. It's so sad. I think what I'll do is just save up like crazy and at some point in the next ten years or so, come back here and shop like crazy, then go home again. I don't know; my head is spinning. I'm saving money and waiting till lunch to buy some food (it's almost time).

Good, the twelve pictures that I started this uploading batch with are now almost done. Too bad I have about a hundred to go. Internet is less than a dollar per hour, but still... my pictures are stuck on this computer! I wonder if I can put things back on to a memory card?

My mission today is to stay under budget, and I think this has to mean avoiding the markets. Maybe I'll take that new 150 Baht and buy a book, settle myself down at a table somewhere, order a 10 Baht banana shake, and read away the afternoon. Yeah.

Oh yeah! Exciting thing! On Tuesday night Kenny and I are going to spend the night being Buddhists-in-training. A wat very near our guesthouse offers a free overnight course introducing foreigners to the basics of Samatha Kammathana (concentration meditation) and Vipassana Kammathana (insight meditation), The schedule goes like this:

2:15pm Assemble at Wat Suan Dok
2:30pm Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation
4:00pm Departure for Training Center
5:00pm Free time, tea and snacks
6:00pm Dinner
6:30pm Evening chanting and Meditation
9:00pm Bedtime

5:00am Morning gong
5:30am Morning chanting, yoga meditation, insight meditation practice
7:00am Alms offering and breakfast
8:30am Discussion on Buddhism and Meditation practice
9:30am Meditation practice
10:30am Break
10:40pm Meditation practice
11:30 Offer food to monks and lunch
12:30 Group photo
1:30pm Return to Wat Suan Dok

So, that's a lot of meditation. I wonder if I'll be able to do it? It sounds like an amazing opportunity just to see what it's like to meditate for that long, because in the presence of monks I'm pretty sure I won't let myself get up and wander around like when I occasionally tried to meditate on my own in the past. In any case, it's only about 24 hours, and mostly free. The only concern is that it hurts Kenny's ankles to sit cross-legged on the floor. Hopefully they'll have a chair or some cushions he can use, or he's going to be pretty miserable.

Okay, I'm going to devote myself to the wrestling of my pictures now. Grrr.

11 January, 2007

In Chiang Mai, the Asheville of Thailand

The train, is was a rocky one, the chairs they were not beds.
It proved a very bumpy task to try and rest my head.
I'd earplugs, though, they helped a lot when Thai teens got all chatty;
and scarves to wrap my poor cold head when brisk winds drove me batty.
I tossed and turned, but yet I slept, and when upon awaking
My window showed a marvelous thing: the sun, no longer baking!
The land is high, the air is cool, my skin no longer sweats
(except when eating spicy food, my forehead does get wet!).
All along the sidewalks here are funky fun cafes,
and yoga classes, veggie grub, and bikes on which to play.
We lost the game "Go Find your Friend" (Lauren, where were you?)
But managed yet the night market feast, and then right out of the blue:
the most glorious thing! Could it be true? Oh, how our eyes grew wide!
To look and see big glowing orbs a'hovering in the sky!
Too orange to be proper stars, and quickly moving, too:
Said I to Ken, "If aliens land, I think I'll likely poo!"
We asked the hippies on the next street to kindly look above
and tell us what it was we saw. They looked at us with love,
and gently told of how the Thais would light balloons ablaze,
and send them up into the sky to vanish in the haze.
"Aha!" cried we, "that is so cool!" and watched them float away,
then back to the guest house to crawl in bed and prepare for another Thai day.

10 January, 2007

Still loving life in Bangkok

Not in the most writy of moods, just beacuse it's a new day in Bangkok and there's so much to try for lunch, so I'll keep this quick. We checked out of our room this morning, but they're holding our backpacks so that we can walk around unfettered. Found a place that washes your laundry for $1 a kilo, have to pick it up by 5pm. Gotta be at the train station by 9pm. Today's mission: finally get a massage and buy snacks for the train. And definitely have more green curry soup. Oh my god. Heaven in a bowl. Tomorrow I get to see Lauren! My Lauren, from Warren Wilson, here in Thailand! It almost doesn't seem possible.

Oh yeah: I have to get a foot massage, not a full body one, because yesterday I finally got the little skin cancer thingy on my back removed. Not the most savoury of blog subjects, but I just want to mention that the consultation, laser removal and medicine to put on it was all less than $30. I think it was a good choice to do it here.

If I ever again get the urge to sign up to be a nanny overseas, Bangkok is the place I would choose. And for all you young teacher out there: do you know about International Schools?? They're all over the world, in every country, and most of them will give you amazing packages including round trip airfare ever year, a housing stipend, local language lessons, and not only that you'd be teaching in a guarenteed good school. So cool. It may yet be in my future.

08 January, 2007

Bangkok is GRAND!

I am in love with Bangkok. I'm not really sure why; we've only been here for about 24 hours, and surely you can't base real love on quality of streetfood and public transportation, can you? (But really, that's what it comes down to. How you gonna get around and what are you gonna eat?).

The skytrain. The metro. The phat thai and the tom yum soup and the sheer cuteness of all the alleys and the squeaky cleanness (relative to Saigon) of the uber-urban downtown. It's like Manhattan putting on a Thai food festival. They have a Little Arabia, a Little India, and a Chinatown. And in terms of plentifulness, the following analogy may be used:

Charlotte, NC : baptist churches and banks :: Bangkok: thai massage spas.

I think that's the way you write an analogy. The first night we got in late after the worst bus ride of my life (never ever voluntarily travel from Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia via the border at Poipet) so we took the first cheap room we could find, which turned out to be the local hangout for burnt-out middle aged people who sat in a huddled mass outside our room door and smoked a water bong until I blearily requested a quieter environment sometime around 1am. Walking around the next morning we noticed that most other guesthouses declared a “no unregistered guests after 9pm” policy, and since the bathrooms were crappy and you basically had to shower in the urinals, we would find another place. Turns out the guesthouse next door is just the cutest thing ever, at only a buck and a half more per night (we're now up to almost $5 a night), we get clean, quiet, and endlessly charming due to the funnily translated signs posted on just about every wall keeping people from repeating apparent infractions commited in the past:

“No drinking whisky and playing cards”

“Please not to washing here before 8 am”

“Teke shoes off we are not responsible for any loosing”

Adorable. I'm so into the place. If anyone goes to Bangkok, stay at the River Guesthouse on Soi 3 off of Th Samsen. We have been eating great food at really cheap prices, which are spiced to the moon and back (think red swollen lips a la Lip Venom from 2002) , and drinking fresh orange juice, and even though we're leaving in 2 days, I can't wait to spend more time here. This city is really, really impressive.

06 January, 2007

A day of highs and lows

The day started a bit low with Kenny and I finally getting on each others' nerves (but you gotta hand it to us, living in such close quarters, we do quite well) so we took the day to hang out on our own and made plans to meet up at dinner. A little bit sad, but knowing it was the best idea, I headed off to the temples for one last dose of ancient history mixed with plenty of scorching sun and dust. I biked around behind some of the temples that had no crowds (I had at least two of them completely to myself) while listening to Etta Baker blues songs. Finally the bike pains in my neck drove me back through the gates and towards the landmine museum, which was probably the most interesting, best put together "museum" I've ever been to: it's a guy's house, this man who is barely ten years older than myself, named Aki Ra, who lives there with his wife and about a dozen kids and teenagers, all victims of landmine accidents. The kids live and work there and in turn, visitors are inspired to pledge money for their university educations if they can get themselves through high school (and these are some really smart, clever kids-- all learning English quickly via tourists who visit the museum). Aki Ra and his wife basically go out on trips to the Cambodian countryside and dismantle live mines with sticks and knives. They take pictures, get friends to write up English and Japanese captions explaining what's going on, and hen they post them all over the walls of their barn-meets-car port thing that they use for the main museum. So it's pictures, informative papers, and a tone of dismantled explosive devices, just piles of them. Pretty amazing, and just so homemade looking that I found myself absorbed for much longer than is customary in big citified air-con museums back home. Aki Ra has been in so many newspapers all over the world, I'm sure you can find more info if you google him.

Then I changed dollars to Baht to prepare for tomorrow's loooong bus ride across the border to Thailand. It's supposed to be 10-14 hours, not counting the stop at the border. We got the earliest bus we could, leaving at 7am, but it looks like we're going to be getting in in the middle of the night. Blechh. Guess we better figure out where we're heading once we reach Bangkok. I'm a little intimidated by the idea of Bangkok, but as our friend Erik said, "if you can live in Saigon, you can definitely do Bangkok." I certainly hope so.

The high point of the day for me was once we had met up and headed out for dinner, looking for cheap eats: we're walking down Bar Street (the nicely lit, not-really-Cambodia part of town) and we come across a troupe of Korean percussion artists, who look like they could be a high school drum corp except for the amazing headgear and funky costumes. These kids were rocking out with hand drums, drums with sticks, silvery gong things, and long white tassels attached to their hats that somehow they managed to swing around their heads in perfect synchronicity. Way cool.

Oh yeah: pictures are up at Flickr! Check out the temples and our random snaps of Phnom Penh.

04 January, 2007

Oh, my aching everything.

That was one of the longest and most rewarding days in the history of me. The fact that it was all done in the Cambodian dry-season heat makes it on the top ten list of most exhausting but important days ever. We started around 7am after a really great night's sleep (nothing like a long bus ride and clean sheets to make you sleep like the dead) and packed our bags and made coffee. We're doing the instant thing, since it's really the ritual that's important at this point, not the quality. Plus, hot water is free in most places. Aughh, I know, we're awful. But it's gotta be this way or we couldn't travel for 8 weeks. Anyway, today we knew where we were going so we hit the road on our squeaky, creaky bikes. Last night my knee was really sore, so I did some experimenting to see if I could use the three gears more efficiently. Turns out all I had to do was shift into the middle gear, meaning I couldn't go as fast unless I wanted to pedal like a maniac. Oh well. So we started at Angkor Wat and spent the whole morning there, acclimatizing ourselves to the museum-meets-Disneyland feel of the place. I actually really like these kinds of places, where you hear dozens of different languages and accents go by you. Pretty fun. The morning was spent climbing crazily steep sets of ancient stone stairs, walking around oohing and ahhing and taking pictures, and trying to imagine what the place would have been like throughout the centuries. Angkor Wat was built in 1191, if I remember correctly, but I probably don't. My brain is sort of cooked right now. At noon we hid ourselves in a shady alcove near the steps of the inner wall and ate our cheapskate lunch: we got 4 apples and 5 baguettes for $2.25, which had to get us through breakfast and lunch and any snacks we might want. It actually wasn't a bad system: the bread here is the same as the Vietnamese banh mi style, medium sized squishy white bread with a good flaky crust, made fresh all over the city every morning. After lunch we got back on the bikes and went up the road to Angkor Thom, the great city of yestercentury, which has many ruins and even more trails going all over the place for miles. We were digging the breeze and the fun of making our peasant bikes do mountainbike things, so we spent a good long while just traversing the dusty trails, winding around beautiful temples and wilderness Buddhas wrapped in orange and saffron cloths. It was truly the high point of this year so far. Maybe it was all the carbs from the brad, but I felt this exhileration (don't laugh) in my soul. I was so grateful to be exactly where I was, and I felt to lucky to be able to see one of the wonders of the world for myself. Cause yeah, there are pictures of all this stuff online already, and I could stay home and read a book. But the smells of the temples, all the incense and old sandstone and that cool dark smell of high ceilings-- now I *know* what it's like to be here. And if anyone's thinking of going, bicycles are the way to go. Maybe not the oldschool $1.50 a day bikes that are more dust than cushion, but biking it is the most fun way to see this place, I guarantee.

After Angkor Thom, we left the city walls and proceeded north to Preah Khan, which turned out to be Kenny's favorite temple so far (mine is Bayon). It was a lot of walking, a lot of stepping up and over things at just about shin height, and then a long ride back in the sunset. Right now, my neck and shoulders ache from the not-quite-right lengths of the bike and handlebars, my toe aches from where I dropped the bike on it, and my scalp itches from sweating and then getting covered in road dust, then sweating again.

But you know what? I'm in Cambodia! This is awesome!

03 January, 2007

In Siem Reap!

After a long bus ride over incredibly bumpy roads, we finally hit our Northernmost point so far, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Better known as the town outside Angkor Wat and the other heavyweight temples, it's a major artery on the tourist trail, and we knew we would be broadsided with motorbike offers, tuk-tuk toters, and all kinds of beggar children, so we were sort of prepared. We accepted the classic "free ride" to a guesthouse, but it was kind of in the middle of nowhere plus it had no internet cafes, so we gave the guy a dollar (standard rate) and despite his protestations that there were No guesthouses available for our desired rate (under $5) and there was NO way we could ride bicycles to the temples (he wanted us to go in his tuk tuk), we took off walking, which is sort of becoming a theme. After getting slightly confused and a bit snippy, we finally found a really cute little wooden guesthouse right off the main drag but miraculously very quiet for $3 a night. Sweet! And they have a porch with hammocks. Rock on. So. We rented bikes from the guy next door for $1.50 a day and took off towards the temples to buy our season pass. I mean our 3-day pass. It just felt so much like going to Carowinds or Six Flags! Looooong roads with signs that were probably saying things like, "hey, you're almost there!" and "don't forget to stop by the ticket booth, now, or we'll throw you in jail." Or something. It was awesome! We felt like such glorious cheap-skates, especially as tuk-tuk after tuk-tuk passed us by with sweaty travellers in tow, baking in the sun to the sounds of "ca-ching!" coming ominously from the wheels below. Hmm, maybe I'm over exaggerating the expensiveness of this town, but honestly: it seems like if you wanted to, you could have a real luxury experience here in the middle of the freaking jungle. So the deal is, when you buy your pass after 5pm, it starts the following day, which lets you in for a free sunset, or at least until they close the place down around 6. So we biked up the path, feeling delirious from having just parted with $80, and suddenly we're seeing some ancient moat action and there it is: Angkor Wat. In all it's big old carved stone Hindu-then-Buddhist glory. The sun set, and it was gorgeous, and then the moon rose, which was even better. And the best part is, our pass starts tomorrow, so we got a glimpse and a practice bike ride before the value for money even begins. Muahahah!! We are budget travellers, watch us re-total our spendings so far! Ha!

Ok, one thing of note: the baby riding in the seat behind us on the bus today suddenly had no pants on when I looked back for like the millionth time to see what the heck all the fuss was about. Sure enough, upon reaching our final destination, it exploded in a green poopy mess, somehow coating the entire back of the bus. "Go, go go! Get off the bus NOW!"

Life on the road.


02 January, 2007

Thoughts on Cambodia (so far)

I'm really sleepy from a filling but forgettable meal, so bullet points it is.

Thoughts on Cambodia, So Far:
-people are darker and broader. In Vietnam everyone was bleaching their skin and dressing to the nines but here, it's a little more of a natural look. Guys are buffer. Girls are rounder. And skin colors are a gorgeous range of bronzy browns.

-being a backpacker is weird... it's really convenient (cheap prices, lots of English spoken) and a neat little mini-society (everything is so close together!), but also kinda disgusting (blatant hooker activity and their mangy customers; cafeteria food at cafeteria prices).

- the Boeng Kak lakeside area in Phnom Penh is fun. Our room, though right on the street, was quiet enough last night for *really* good sleep. Heavy, dark, dead-to-the-world sleep. Nice.

-the Tuol Sleng Museum is Cambodia's answer to Europe's Holocaust museum. It was gruesome but really well done. Very respectful to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. But it was a little much to see the torture photos and to look down and realize that we were standing on the same tiled floor that the killing took place on. Yikes.

-it's really freaking hot and dusty here. Also, when choosing from a myriad of bathroom options, with toilet paper is better than with bidet (just my preference), but "squatty potties" are preferable to regular sit down toilets because let's face it, if you're not keen to touch your skin to a surface, squatting low is more comfy than doing the "thighs of steel" hover.

-buses are plentiful on the tourist trail. There are so, so many ways to get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and I'm willing to bet that there are just as many (maybe more) to get us from Siem Reap to Bangkok. In this way, being prepared can be nice but you can also just show up and there will be many guys with motorbikes and tuk-tuks (these guys are called touts) ready to take you somewhere you didn't know about before.

-and despite it all, I still really like Lonely Planet. People like to turn up their noses and say it's too touristy, too mainstream, blah blah and sure, they're right: if you live your life out of a lonely planet book you'll be sure to feel like a tourist all the time. But I've found it really helpful when you don't want to carry a map, a language guide, a list of attractions, and a description of local foods around with you. So far, so good.

-catching the bus at 6:50 am tomorrow! gotta go snooze.

01 January, 2007

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia

New year, new country:

The beach was amazing. It really did feel like living in a postcard, but in such a comfortable way. I wrote a little while I was there, but that's all on Kenny's computer, so I'll post them here later. The particular part of the island that we were on, Sao Beach, was far away from the crowds, incredibly cheap to live on, and the ocean was perfect for walking out really, really far before the water rose over your head. So many pictures taken, so much to say about the place... how can I sum it up? I guess I really liked that we were staying in a little beach bungalow run by a seafood restaurant ("My Lan"). They didn't really speak much English, and they never came in our hut to do typical hotel stuff (sheets, trash, cleaning) but that turned out to be why we liked it so much. Really rustic and easy. The bungalow had a bed with a mosquito net and a cabinet for our clothes and not really much else, and that was perfect. The floor was just smooth beach boards and so we swept the sand away easily (the sand that gets everywhere is always my least favorite part of the beach). We woke up at sunrise every morning, pulled on our bathing suits, and walked the 20 feet or so to the ocean, and usually I went on a walk in the early morning waves and Kenny went for a run up and down the beach. We would come back to our little hut, shower off and pull on some shorts or something, and have breakfast of fresh fruit cut up for us by the staff. Pineapple, watermelon, baby oranges... yum. Then it was up to us to decide in which order we wanted to do our things that we do: going somewhere on the motorbike (that we rented for $5 a day and which Kenny bravely drove), swimming, sunning, reading, and of course eating seafood. The restaurant had some fisherboys (they looked really young, like 15) that came up every evening at sunset and sold them what they had caught. The specialties were great hotpots, squid, scallops, giGANtic prawns, and for some reason chicken. We had all of these things in soups, grilled in front of us on a grill, stir-fried, and deep fried at least once. It was SO good. So fresh. And (you knew this was coming) so cheap. I'll just say that meals in the restaurant a few times a day plus fruit from the market came to a grand total of about $90 for the whole week (for two of us). And we shared a lot of our fruit. Oh, man. It was good stuff.

So we took a day in Saigon to do last minute errands, getting ready for the big trip. Getting money out of the ATMs, changing it to dollars, buying more floss, picking up stuff from various places, and (for Kenny) spending lots of time running around to various internet cafes to do law school application tasks. We went to Pham Ngu Lau for New Years Eve but to be honest it was pretty boring. There was fistfuls of glitter being thrown on our heads (and down our shirts, and in our eyes) and beers were 60,000 ($4, which is outrageous for Saigon). We stayed for the countdown, hollered for a minute, sand Auld Lang Syn, and then crashed like the tired kids we were (thanks, Mike, for lending us your room!).

Early this morning, January 1, we caught a bus to Phnom Penh. The border crossing was simply amazing: it was my first time seeing bribes in action from government officials. The best part was seeing a uniformed Cambodian official stick a stack of Vietnamese passports down the back of his pants and run off, coming back a few minutes later with (apparently) the paperwork done and the passports stamped, which he gave to a group of Vietnamese men who then motioned their wives excitedly out of the queue. "Lets go! We're done!" Things like this were happening all around us. Finally, though, we got to Phnom Penh and had a nice walk from the Capitol area to the Boeng Kak Lake area, which felt almost exactly like walking in Saigon, except that I felt even more illiterate. The Cambodian/Khmer script is beautiful, and to me it looks like Georgian tried to eat Hebrew and took a Saudi Arabian digestive. It's square but twisty, with lots of neat tails and holes.

We arrived to find a trash-strewn but appealing backpacker street, much like Saigon' but smaller, with less right angles, and more Indian restaurants. It's pretty charming so far, but it's just now getting dark and I'm not sure how loud our $3 room will be. We had some vegetarian stir fry dishes at a cute little place that drew us with with the promise of a free beer with every meal (which turned out to mean one per table), and the food was salty but the veggies were fresh. Now we're tapping it up in one of the kazillion internet cafes, and I'm ready to read in bed, while Kenny will probably be here for quite awhile. Tonight he's applying to William and Mary and Duke. Cool, huh?

Next up: a day full of Phnom Penh, one more cheap night, and then a bus to Angkor Wat, where the real reason for Cambodia lies (for us, at least. For now).

Much much more later.

I'm on Flickr a lot.

Jessica K.. Get yours at bighugelabs.com/flickr